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Tuesday
May152018

"Birds on Tote Bags": An Interview with Catherine Carberry

Catherine Carberry is a writer and editor living in New York. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Guernica, Harvard Review, North American Review, Tin House online, and Indiana Review, and has been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Her story, "Birdkillers," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, she talks with interviewer Dana Diehl about birds as a metaphor, the spooky violence of children, and finding patterns as a way of building narrative.

What inspired this piece, “Birdkillers”?

It began as an antidote to what I saw as precious depictions of birds in literature and design. So many poems about starlings, so many silhouettes of birds on tote bags. I think of that Portlandia sketch (Put a bird on it!) and how the same people who find this appeal in birds as metaphors or decorative images are disgusted when confronted with the real thing. I was relieved of any sense of birds as cute when, as a teenager, I visited a friend who kept birds that were allowed to fly around in the house. My friend’s father came home from a shift in the ER, wearing these blood-speckled scrubs, and the birds landed on his shoulder as he ate the dinner we’d made for him (which, of course, was poultry—a horrible purple experiment involving chicken soaked in red wine). That image stayed with me—the tired doctor, the blood, the birds. I wanted to write about the sort of people who would kill a bird, and explore who they were and why they would do it. In the end, it turned out that they were all women.

The last story in this piece begins, “Insane people see patterns everywhere.” What patterns do you hope readers see in these stories, other than the obvious of the birds? Why do these stories belong together instead of apart? What thought went into the order? (Sorry, sneaking three questions into one!)

The narrator who speaks that line is more averse to pattern-building than I am! Sure, conspiracy theorists and the paranoid see connections and patterns everywhere, but finding patterns is also a way of building a narrative, ascribing meaning to chaotic events. In these stories, I wanted to get the question of a bird’s fate out of the way, to clear more space for the context and emotional trajectory of each character. The first story begins with the question of trust between a man and a woman, and the final story ends with these two versions of a song, by Robert Johnson and Joni Mitchell. In between this question of trust and what we choose to honor are these vignettes of birdkillers—cruel children, witchy daughters, women with a streak of malice—which I hope illuminate that question.

I’ve taught at a K–4 grade school for the past three years, and this story made me recall two bird and kid-related experiences I’ve had in the past few months. The first: a pigeon got trapped in the lunch room, and as I and another teacher struggled to shoo it toward the door, a group of students started chanting: “Kill it! Kill it!” The second: a child strangely and spontaneously announced to me, “Next Valentine’s Day, I’m giving everyone a bird skeleton. I have a lot of birds to kill.” Why do you think children and adults alike are drawn to bird deaths? Why were you drawn to bird deaths?

Those stories are incredible! I’m fascinated by the spooky violence of children. And I find validation in your students’ instinct to kill birds, because these stories reveal what I think is a certain truth—birds are a beautiful menace. We see them pecking dead things on the side of the road, we know they carry disease, but we’re also drawn to watching them, finding meaning in their flight, using them as metaphor for freedom or confinement.  I’ve sought to learn how to externalize conflict in my stories—too often, there’s the impulse for something to happen to the character, but then the story is consumed by reaction. I like reactive stories, but in structuring each story around the act of killing an animal so loaded with metaphor, I was trying to force myself to build characters who act.

If you were a bird, what kind of bird do you think you would you be?

That is a very different question than what bird I want to be! I’d want to be a stubborn male peacock who chases tourists when they try to take photos, but I think I’d be a small and plain-looking beach bird, swooping over the cliffs or pecking at the rocks jutting out from the sea.

What is inspiring you these days? It could be a book, a movie, an album, or even a food.

I just finished Mavis Gallant’s novel, “A Fairly Good Time” and underlined almost every sentence. It was inspiring in that the writing is wry, funny, and full of these uncanny cognitive leaps, with such a distinct observational eye.

What projects are you working on currently?

 I’ve been drafting a novel based on a women-led independence movement in Puerto Rico in 1950, and the subsequent assassination attempt of President Truman by two Puerto Ricans. It began as a short story several years ago, loosely based on a family member who was a closeted gay artist in 1950s Puerto Rico. As I began to research the independence movements and political climate of the time, I became preoccupied with the notion of failed revolutions, and what independence means both politically and personally. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria only solidified what I see as an imperative to write about Puerto Rico and to reckon with the damaging consequences of the United States’ political and economic interference over the past century.

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